Peter Nichols’s The National Health, the National Theatre’s (NT) only popular success of 1969 and winner of that year’s Evening Standard award for “Best New Play,” seems to have succeeded in spite of the efforts of Laurence Olivier, then the NT’s artistic director, to keep it out of the public eye. Nichols’s play, a profane and medically explicit view of a hospital ward with a cast of thirty, offered what Kenneth Tynan described as “an anatomy of England.” As such, it was an ideal test case for the NT’s power and willingness to use its subsidy to stage challenging plays. This article examines the drawn-out, internal struggle over Health, drawing on previously unexamined material from the playwright’s personal papers at the British Library, as well as original interviews with Nichols and director Michael Blakemore. It provides insight into the structure and policies of the NT during Olivier’s directorship—in particular, Tynan’s championing the play casts new light on his role within the NT management, while the play’s scheduling difficulties reveal problems with large-scale repertory, which the NT continues to face.


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pp. 443-462
Launched on MUSE
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